LONDON—We were on a mission. Go to London and find at least 15 quality hotels where two can stay for $150 or less a night. That's right. Not 150 pounds, but 150 dollars, including breakfast and tax (the dreaded VAT, a.k.a. value-added tax at 17.5 percent).
It took 10 days, but we succeeded. In fact, we found 20 worthy candidates that met our bang-for-the-buck challenge.
In other words, a subway stop (Brits call it the Tube, or Underground) had to be within walking distance--with as few stops and line changes as possible (London has 11 lines)--to popular tourist sites, restaurants and shops.
Day after day we walked and walked, rang lots of doorbells--and found a lot of places we can't recommend for one reason or another . . . shabby lobby, shabby rooms, unpleasant smells, unfriendly staff.
In all, we visited about 50 hotels, saw dozens of rooms and stayed at four places in four parts of London. Our research was a mere blip on the hotel radar screen, considering there are 1,233 hotels in London and 161,235 beds, according to the London Tourist Board. Before the trip, we spent hours on the Internet looking at dozens of Web sites that specialize in budget hotels. We looked through a lot of books. Being familiar with London from past visits, we steered clear of upscale neighborhoods like Mayfair and St. James's, home to expensive hotels where our budget for a week's stay could easily be spent on one night in a hotel like the Ritz or the Dorchester.
Which brings us to our 20, and though they call themselves hotels, they're mainly bed-and-breakfast accommodations in that breakfast (continental or English) is included in the rate. Most places are small, with several exceptions. And, most do not have elevators or air conditioning, features that are tough to find in this price category. Usually staff will help bring luggage to rooms.
This area known for literature, art and learning is home to the British Museum, London's most popular attraction. Bloomsbury's literary roots were made famous by the Bloomsbury Group of writers (Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, among others) and artists (Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, etc.) who lived in the area and were active from the early 1900s until about the '30s.
Located at the corner of Marchmont and Cartwright Gardens, this 43-room hotel has been in the family of proprietor Andrew Davies for three generations.
Made up of three townhouses that date from the early 1800s, the hotel, one of a number on this street, has recently been renovated and looks terrific. Especially eye-catching is the sophisticated-looking lounge with modern sofas and chairs done in purple. The large windows that overlook Cartwright Gardens have draperies in purple and white. A gas fireplace with a large portrait hanging above is a focal point.
Blues and yellows are the colors in the rooms, with bedspreads and draperies to match. No. 11 in the back of the hotel has a canopy bed that pretty much takes up the entire room. No. 18 is a twin-bedded room that faces the garden. Both are in blue.
All rooms have TV (non-satellite), direct-dial phones, computer outlets, coffee- and tea-making gear, and hair dryers. Most rooms have showers only. Some front rooms have double-glazed windows.
English breakfast is served in a room opposite the lounge, which has a modern look offset by antique-looking chandeliers. Three large windows face the gardens. Like some other hotels on this street, guests can get a key to the gardens.
No air conditioning (fans are available), and another negative: no elevator for the five floors.
(All rates have been converted at $=$1.56 and rounded off to the nearest dollar. And, unless otherwise noted, all hotels accept credit cards.) Rates: single, 72 ($112); double and twin, 90 ($140); triple, 100 ($156); quad, 108 ($168). Address: 61 Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury, London WC1H 9EL. Phone: 011-44-20-7387-1551. Fax: 011-44-20-7387-4616. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web: www.harlingfordhotel.com. Tube: Russell Square, Euston.
This hotel moved to the top of our list when we found the "resident greeters"--three black Labrador retrievers--sitting at the entrance on the hotel's Web site.